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Review of Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology

By Ryan Bedsaul

Gavaler, Chris and Beavers, Leigh Ann. Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Sometimes craft books are just an excuse to postpone putting pen to paper. I certainly delayed years of writing by reading every craft text on fiction, from Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird to Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me, and while I learned a lot, it’s hard to say if that time would not have been better spent toiling away in Microsoft Word. Finding the right balance between studying and practicing one’s craft is difficult, so I consider it an accomplishment when a craft book nourishes a creative impulse in its reader without postponing or, worse, stifling said impulse. By design, Chris Galaver and Leigh Ann Beavers’ Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology, accomplishes exactly that.

As its title suggests, the book is technically divided into two distinct parts: a guide and a comics anthology. In the six chapters composing the guide portion of the book, Galaver and Beavers cover almost every element of comics creativity, from initial character sketches to panel rhyme schemes, in written passages that are often accompanied by illustrations or exercises. The illustrations help break up the prose heavy pages with visual examples, while the exercises provide opportunities for readers to apply new concepts as they go. For example, within the section on “accents” —variations in panel design—the reader encounters written explanations alongside visual aids and student examples, then an exercise that asks the reader to implement an accent on one of their own panels from a previous exercise (Galaver and Beavers 112-120). This cycle of reading, viewing, and practicing is both informative and interactive as it enables the reader to participate in the creative process as it unfolds and internalize each step before jumping into the independent exercises. I often found that this broke down the otherwise overwhelming task of creating a sequence from scratch into manageable parts. Each chapter also ends with a passage that connects the concepts discussed to examples within the anthology to further solidify said concepts in the reader’s mind. The anthology, located at the back of the book as chapter seven, collects excerpts from a few dozen artists that mostly function as a reference source for the guide chapters. The guide, however, is the main act of the book and, thus, worth diving into a bit more.

The general trajectory of the guide is loyal to the “image first” approach Galaver and Beavers all-but-endorse in chapter one, in which they cite the limitations of a script-based approach to a predominantly visual medium. They insist on “allowing images to not only guide story but determine it” (Galaver and Beavers 17). Thus, the guide begins in the visual and proceeds towards narrative and the written word: The first chapter covers the basics of image-making from the media one uses (e.g. pen, Microsoft Paint, collage) to drawing fundamentals (e.g. line variations, depth, contrast) as one hones in on one’s idiosyncratic drawing style. From there, chapter two covers various kinds of “hinges” —the placement of images side-by-side to generate different meanings. Chapters three and four build on this fundamental relationship between panels by, in the former, examining larger “sequences” of images that follow a narrative structure, and, in the latter, revealing how certain page layouts can create their own dynamics even across multiple images. Chapter five discusses how words fit into these images, insisting on their supportive (read: not superfluous or redundant) role in the form. For Galaver and Beavers, the biggest artistic offense in comics is writing text that simply reiterates an image rather than challenging or recontextualizing it. Ideally, the written word comes in to add meaning that the image alone does not convey. One form of this would be using language that diverges with the implication of an image (e.g. a smiling face paired with narration that reads, “I was depressed”). But where the meaning between images and words is the same, Galaver and Beavers advise that artists do away with the words. 

The progression from drawing to writing in these chapters is quite satisfying. With each successive concept, one feels the comic building blocks coming together from character sketches to panels to full page stories, and the exercises outlined in each chapter build on that momentum, calling back to previous exercises for inspiration or revision in later chapters so that, by the end of the book, the reader has some foundational material to work from. The end of the guide, chapter six, offers some final thoughts on process, reviewing the “image first” approach while also providing some alternatives for getting started, whether that’s beginning with a script, a layout, or a character. 

While they primarily advocate for visual approaches over scripted ones, Galaver and Beavers are always open to other possibilities. As they say from the outset: “Creating Comics maps the fundamentals of the form to build a foundation that offers the widest creative freedom by defining the fullest range of possibilities” (Galaver and Beavers 9). This tendency to open rather than constrain creative possibility comes to the fore in chapter three when Galaver and Beavers examine a familiar story structure schema—a minor modification of Freytag’s pyramid (the classic plot structure that moves from exposition to climax to resolution). At first, their explanations of “inciting incidents” and “climaxes” reminded me of the screenwriting craft books I’ve read. In those texts there is always an emphasis on the specific “beats” one must hit in a screenplay, insisting on certain plot checkpoints as the be-all and end-all of story structure. (E.g. An “all is lost” moment must precede the climax of the story in order to raise the stakes for the hero’s triumphant end.) To me, this approach always made the screenwriter out to be more a mechanic and less a craftsman, let alone an artist. 

Luckily, Galaver and Beavers pair this restrictive method with an opposite approach that they call “Abstract Plots.” An entire section has been devoted to this approach.  Galaver and Beavers include examples of how a story may progress through visual transformation rather than story (figure 1). Even when “the images themselves don’t represent anything,” they say, “shapes and marks can still create a forward-moving rhythm that in some ways feels like a story arc” (Galaver and Beavers 91). It reminds me of the Heider-Simmel illusion in which viewers attribute agency to the actions of shapes, finding plot where only geometric forms exist. The same thing happens with “abstract plots” except the agential image might be more abstract like a cephalopod-esque form (figure 1) that ejects cylindrical forms from its suction cups that future panels reveal to be eggs holding new cephalopod-esque beings. While it’s difficult to put down in words, the progression from one form to the next is visually coherent. Thus, in the abstract plots section, one sees the extremes of the image-first approach taking form. These more abstract works, while less traditional in their narrative form, still share the same expressiveness as more traditional comics storytelling, and thus demonstrate the pure visual potential of the form. 

Panel of comics

Figure 1

The guide continuously echoes the anthology throughout the book; each chapter ends with a passage that connects the concepts discussed to examples within the anthology. With that in mind, I would advise readers of the book to begin with the anthology before the guide to limit frequent flips back and forth to study the many styles of the artists included there. This will make paragraphs with multiple artist references easier to parse through. I found this out the hard way as I lost momentum in the final paragraphs of the first chapter while frantically flipping back and forth between the guide and the anthology to locate the artists and compare their styles with the chapter descriptions. 

In general, the anthology is emblematic of the dynamic approach used within the chapters. The pairing of academic prose with visual examples is a strength of the book that reflects the comics form by leaning on the clarity of images when words fall short; in combination, the passages and their corresponding illustrations provide a very clear sense of each concept. In fact, the only times when the concepts are difficult to imagine are when they are solely rendered through language. Usually, this manifests as a reference to a comic that the authors describe without showing. For example, when discussing the use of diagonal and curved gutter lines to divide up pages, Galaver and Beavers reference several superhero comics that accomplish this, but, in attempting to describe the effect, fall short of the precision offered by the concrete examples in the anthology (Galaver and Beavers 106). This isn’t a problem when one is familiar with the comics discussed, but it could be a problem for beginners with fewer reference points. Compared to more popular texts like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Creating Comics is perhaps less approachable because of this more academic lens, which assumes at least an intermediate level of familiarity, though one could hardly fault the book for being more comprehensive. Missing these references hardly detracts from the overall aim of the book.

It is also worthwhile to note that the term “anthology” is a bit misleading. The comics that compose Creating Comics’s anthology, while useful for the purposes of the guide section of the book, don’t offer rich reading experiences on their own. They are, as the authors note, fragments of larger works. Rather, the strength of the anthology lies in the breadth of styles it represents. It illuminates a huge range of artistic possibilities, from Elizabeth Bick’s photo comics to gg’s digitally rendered comics to Isabel Rueben’s chiaroscuro noir comics, without promoting one style over the others. Of course, certain artists do stand out—

Alison Bechdel, Liana Finck, Marjane Satrapi, and Adrian Tomine—but perhaps this is a matter of taste.

Speaking of chiaroscuro, the final criticism I’ll level at the book is its lack of color. All the illustrations and anthologized comic excerpts are rendered in black and white, which means any discussion of color beyond the use of gray tones, or fill, is missing from the book. In this way the book is not as comprehensive as promised and its approach to comics creation would certainly be improved from a chapter on color techniques employed by different comics. For example, they might break down the contrast of the controlled, high-saturation color scheme of Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown against the more muted, occasionally monochromatic look of David Mazuchelli’s Asterios Polyp. But the real accomplishment of the book is the number of possibilities it offers readers (even without color) to get started creating comics of their own. I’d encourage readers to take their time proceeding through it, trying out each of the exercises along the way so that, by the end of it, you’ll have left not only with a deeper knowledge of the fundamental concepts of the form, but also a sketchbook filled with comics. 

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